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How accountants can care for themselves when caring for clients

The coronavirus crisis is placing a high degree of stress on practitioners working long hours to help distressed clients. CPA Australia has teamed with two pre-eminent mental health services to offer much-needed supportive resources.

Johanna Leggatt | May 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic disrupts businesses and bottom lines, the traditional remit of accountants has broadened to include that of a psychologist, detailed explanation of complex JobKeeper legislation, and a friendly shoulder to lean on.

Predictably, the outbreak is imposing considerable stress on all practitioners, and knowing how to help valued clients while still helping yourself is one of the biggest challenges accountants face, according to Beyond Blue workplace engagement manager, Michael O’Hanlon.

“The pressure [on accountants] is two-fold,” O’Hanlon says. “They face challenges running their own businesses at this time, as well as  coping with stress from advising other small businesses and clients.”

Mental health resources

To improve the ability of accountants to safeguard their mental health during this difficult time, CPA Australia has teamed with two leading mental health services, Beyond Blue and Mental Health First Aid Australia (MHFA), to provide members with a raft of additional resources, including a webinar on 21 May.

The webinar will feature O’Hanlon and MHFA workplace engagement manager, Kathy Bond, offering tailored advice to practitioners on strategies to maintain sound mental health.

“Accountants are working with people who are distressed about finances, which can be a source of great worry [at the best of times],” Bond says.

Indeed, a 2018 report by SuperFriend highlights just how susceptible those working in financial services may be to stress.

In a survey of 5000 workers, SuperFriend’s Financial and Insurance Services Industry Profile Report found that nearly half of all financial services employees (47 per cent) experience ongoing stress in their job, which is 9 per cent higher than the national average.

“Previous research has highlighted high levels of psychological distress amongst professionals, with accountants ranking in the top three,” notes O’Hanlon.

Be aware of the signs

The first step to protecting mental health is being able to recognise when stress is taking over.

“You may feel on edge, on the verge of tears, or angry,” Bond explains.

Be attuned to any changes in thinking, behaviour or feelings that are personally unusual and last more than a few days, she adds.

“You may not get any enjoyment out of the activities you used to, or lack motivation.”

O’Hanlon points out that it is common during a pandemic (or any crisis) for people to experience changes in sleep patterns and appetite.

“You may also feel more indecisive or overwhelmed, or start to think you will never get out of the pandemic,” he says. “You may also [experience] poor concentration and lack focus.”

Stay connected to co-workers

One of the best ways to improve wellbeing is to stay connected with co-workers through teleconferencing or videoconferencing.

“Set aside 10 or 15 minutes for morning tea breaks with colleagues,” Bond advises. 

“It allows us to see if someone else is doing OK and to also share if we are not doing OK.”

O’Hanlon suggests sharing how stressed you feel with co-workers and picking up tips on how they manage their stress levels.

“Recognise there is nothing wrong with needing support,” he says. “If you are part of a network like CPA Australia members are, you may find other members are going through something very similar. 

“Keeping in touch with your peers is a great way of normalising your situation.”

If you need more structured support, both Bond and O’Hanlon emphasise the importance of talking to a mental health professional – even via a hotline – or consulting with your doctor.

Exercise and look after yourself

Most know that exercise is important, and as O’Hanlon notes, good physical health is directly associated with positive mental space.

If you want to be mentally healthy, you have to be physically healthy, he says.

“We, as a society, have separated the two concepts, but you can’t separate them in yourself [because] they’re linked [to] who you are.”

However, there is no necessity to sprint stairs or hallways.

“Whatever exercise gives you a mental break is all that is needed,” O’Hanlon says. 

“It could be simply walking the dog during your lunch break. Now more than ever it is important to schedule breaks into your daily routine.”

Set boundaries

Boundaries are important, too, which means limiting exposure to distressing or distracting content.

According to O’Hanlon, for some, it’s imperative to limit interaction with the news cycle and to manage routines “in a more deliberate way”.

“There is a real risk of information overload [which] can add to stress and confusion,” he warns.

It can also be helpful to create boundaries in your home life by working from a separate home office, where possible.

“That way, when you are in your office or spare bedroom you are working, and when you finish at the end of the day, you leave work behind,” O’Hanlon says.

Most importantly: it’s OK to not feel OK.

“It’s a strange and unusual time for all of us, so remember that you are not alone in these experiences,” Bond says.

For further information, visit: MHFA's COVID-19 Health and Mental Health Resources and Beyond Blue Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service